Bones of Crows is a striking cinematic response to Canada's 'reign of terror against Indigenous people'
Director Marie Clements' new film confronts the hard truths about the residential school experience
Cutaways is a personal essay series where filmmakers tell the story of how their film was made. This TIFF 2022 edition by Marie Clements focuses on her film Bones of Crows, which follows a young Indigenous woman through her life as she is sent to residential school and eventually enlists in the military.
When my mother was passing away, a Catholic priest was doing his rounds in the hospital and asked if he could come in and give her last rites. She pretended to be sleeping and gave me a nod, which translated to, "Make him go away."
I politely told him my mother was resting. He came in the next day. The same ritual. The next. She would open her eyes when he turned his back, the hospital door open; we would watch him make his way down the long hospital corridor. His black suit. His black shoes on the floor, his black overcoat catching movement. He would stop at hospital doors on his journey down, poking his head in when he could. Smiling.
On her last day, we were watching him like we did. My mother looked at him making his way and then at me — and smiled too. They are like crows... they always try and get you when you're down.
A couple of years ago, bones of residential school children were found under a campground where I am sure Canadian families fulfilled their camping holiday dreams for decades; roasting hot dogs, making s'mores, singing songs — parents and kids together making family memories. All the while running and frolicking on the bones of Indigenous children who were buried there decades ago, not far from a residential school, their own families still waiting for them to come home.
As I was writing and then going into production for Bones of Crows, more and more residential school children were being found across Canada in unmarked graves. The film was meant to speak to the multi-generational legacy of the residential school experience — but there was no way of knowing how impactful it would be to be shooting scenes in the Kamloops Residential School while also watching hundreds of people come to the memorial set up outside of the school in response to the bodies of 215 residential school students being found.
I always envisioned Bones of Crows as a darkly psychological drama, told in individual parts that add up. It is inherently connected, in its telling, to blood memory — the idea that we are living in the present but are affected by the lives and trauma of not only our own personal battles of survival, but those of our ancestors. In the story of Bones of Crows, we come to understand memory not just as a flashback but as an emotional reaction triggered by a present one.
Bones of Crows is the largest production on the residential school experience that was written, directed, and produced by an Indigenous creator. It is the first time we will be able to see ourselves — our grandmothers and grandfathers, our parents, aunties, and uncles, over a span of 100 years while also being modern in the time that they were alive.
We don't really have a filmic record of seeing ourselves as a part of history. Yet most of us have our family albums that archive the reality that we have always been here.
There are war heroes and seamed nylons, Indian cowboys, straight skirts, tattoos and horn-rimmed glasses. There are black-haired bee-hives and tailored suits, palazzo pants and mustang bikes. There are politics and wars, human rights movements and traditional realities. This film is a generational period piece coming up through the decades, asserting that our future was always present, our past always connected to the future.
Bones of Crows is a cinematic response to our lived history in Canada, where the reign of terror against Indigenous people included starvation, disease warfare, sterilization, residential schools and pedophilia, paving a highway for the Sixties Scoop, Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, poverty, the incarceration of Indigenous people, environmental crisis and the foster care system. This story is committed to telling the hard truths and challenging a singular vision of history to create change.
Bones of Crows is mythic. It has black wings that live in the mind's eye of our central character, Aline, and her siblings because as six-year-old children, that was what they would hear coming — black shoes against wooden floors. They see wings descending against the walls of the residential school dorm (cloaks of priests and nuns habits). Beaks and birds' eyes that see everything... because they always try and get you when you are down.
Bones of Crows is epic in scope. With fellow producers Trish Dolman, Christine Haebler, and Sam Grana, and associate producers Leena Minifie and Kerriann Cardinal, we shot in five different territories, in three different languages, with 180 cast roles, on 150 sets that represented over nine decades and showcased five generations of Indigenous performers.
Artistically, my hope was to execute an unapologetic vision, a cinematic experience that is second to none. We committed to bringing together the brightest minds and strongest hearts — leading Indigenous artists and actors with leading non-Indigenous artists and actors, to tell a shared story that is uniquely Canadian, undeniably Indigenous and universally human.
Missed it at TIFF? Catch it at the Atlantic International Film Festival (September 15–22), the Edmonton International Film Festival (September 22–October 1) and the Vancouver International Film Festival (Sept 29–October 9).